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Can A Vegan Diet Give You All You Need? German Nutritionists Say 'Nein'

Berlin has become a vegan mecca, with ice cream shops like Kontor Eismanufaktur Berlin (pictured here), restaurants and even butchers catering to a plant-based diet. Now Germany's nutritionists warn that a vegan diet can't provide all a body needs.
Courtesy of Susan Stone
Berlin has become a vegan mecca, with ice cream shops like Kontor Eismanufaktur Berlin (pictured here), restaurants and even butchers catering to a plant-based diet. Now Germany's nutritionists warn that a vegan diet can't provide all a body needs.

For some, there's a a glam factor attached to the vegan lifestyle. And these days, there seems to be a growing chorus singing the praises of the environmental and health benefits of a plant-centric diet.

Perhaps nowhere is the embrace of a vegetarian diet more on display than in Berlin, Germany, dubbed a global vegan mecca for its growing array of restaurants (think: vegan kebabs, pizza and ice cream) as well as vegan street festivals — and even a vegan butcher. One pro-vegan group estimates about 80,000 people in Berlin are following a vegan diet.

If you listen to my story, you'll hear Berlin resident Moza Kabbar, who says there's a huge boom in enthusiasm for veganism in the city.

But not everyone in Germany is on board. In a new paper, the German Nutrition Society says a vegan diet can't provide everything your body needs.

"With a pure plant-based diet, it is difficult or impossible to attain an adequate supply of some nutrients," states the German Nutrition Society's new position on the vegan diet. "The most critical nutrient is B-12," which is found in eggs and meat. The group says if you follow a vegan diet, you should take supplements to protect against deficiencies.

According to the German nutritionists, other "potentially critical nutrients" that may be a challenge to get in a vegan diet include omega-3s — found in fatty fish — as well as minerals such as calcium, iron, iodine, zinc and selenium. So the group recommends that vegans get advice from a nutrition counselor and be "regularly checked by a physician." In addition, the society recommends against a vegan diet for pregnant women, women who are breast-feeding, children and adolescents.

Advocates for veganism say the new position from German nutritionists goes too far.

"With a little planning and knowledge, rest assured, you can get everything you need from a vegan diet for great health ... at any age," Jimmy Pierson, a spokesperson for the Vegan Society, based in England, told us by phone.

Pierson acknowledges the point that it's harder to get some nutrients, such as omega 3s, from a vegan diet. But he points out that there are plant-based alternatives.

"Omega-3 is found in flaxseed, so I make sure I consume quite a bit of flaxseed every week," Pierson says. He says omega-3 supplements are another option. He also acknowledges that other supplements can be beneficial, too.

But he pushes back against the idea that you can't get enough calcium or iron while following a vegan diet. He says it's a matter of eating a wide array of plant-based foods, including beans, seeds, greens and nuts, as well as fruits and vegetables.

So, can you get everything you need from a vegan diet? I wondered what nutrition experts in the U.S. think.

"It is possible to get the nutrients you need," says Lisa Cimperman. She's a registered dietitian in Cleveland, Ohio, and a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

But she says if vegans are not careful, they can — as the new German position paper points out — miss out, especially when it comes to vitamin B-12.

"B-12 only comes from animal products," says Cimperman. "It's necessary for proper red blood cell formation, as well as normal neurological function."

Many foods — including some breakfast cereals, as well as some nondairy creamers and milks — are fortified with B-12. So it's possible to get all the nutrition you need this way, if you eat enough of these fortified foods regularly.

But to make sure you're covering all your bases, "I would recommend [taking] a standard multivitamin," Cimperman says. It's a good insurance policy for vegans.

As for putting kids on vegan diets, the American Academy of Pediatrics says children can be well-nourished on all kinds of vegetarian diets, "but nutritional balance is very difficult to achieve if dairy products and eggs are completely eliminated," the position states. The academy recommends that if your child is following a vegetarian diet, "you need to guard against nutritional deficiencies."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: September 14, 2016 at 11:00 PM CDT
In the audio version of this story, we state that a Berlin vegan ice cream shop uses palm oil to make its ice cream. That is what an employee of the store told us during taping; however, the owner has since written us to correct this. The owner says the ice cream is made with cocoa butter, avocados or olive oil, depending on the flavor. And some types don't need any oil beyond what's already in the soy milk or coconut milk.
Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.